By Heather Dewey-Hagborg

from GeneWatch 27-1 | Jan-Apr 2014

All images courtesy of Heather Dewey-Hagborg

In Stranger Visions, artist Heather Dewey-Hagborg creates portrait sculptures from analyses of genetic material like hair, fingernails, chewing gum and cigarette butts, collected in public places. Working with traces strangers unwittingly leave behind, Dewey-Hagborg calls attention to the impulse toward genetic determinism and the potential for a culture of genetic surveillance.

Beginning with a single hair that captured her imagination, Dewey-Hagborg set out to learn just how much she could find out about someone from a discarded forensic artifact. Working at Genspace, a community laboratory in downtown Brooklyn, she became an amateur biohacker, learning the tools of forensic science in a thoroughly unconventional way.  Working from published research she was able to create approximations, sketches of the individuals who left their DNA on the subway, on a sidewalk or in a public restroom. Traits like eye and hair color, gender, ancestry, complexion, tendency to be overweight, freckles, and a handful of facial landmarks combine to create a speculative portrait, pointing toward the already emerging police practice known as "forensic DNA phenotyping" - the determination of appearance from DNA evidence.

Stranger Visions has stirred international controversy, landing the artist in policy discussions and biotechnology advisory panels in addition to art and science exhibits around the globe. In addition to questions of biological surveillance, she hopes the work embodies more complex questions as well, such as the ongoing quest to discover genetic foundations of race, and the lack of regulation of this technology in a police and corporate context. Dewey-Hagborg also sees potentially positive uses of this type of technology, in the attempts to give faces to unidentified victims, ancient remains, and science education.

For more about Stranger Visions and Dewey-Hagborg's other projects, visit



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